Sunday, 22 April 2012

Sunday Salon: Reflections of a Readathon

The Sunday

Yesterday I took part in my first 24 hour readathon. I have been aware of this event for a couple of years but I've not been able to take part before. The start time of 13:00 on a Saturday (to reflect the official starting time in America) was no good to me when I was a student and when I began working in a 'proper' weekday job.

Then I noticed that some participants were bending the rules. Yes, they were reading for 24 hours but they started at 00:01 according to their time zones. Now this I could sign up to. You can read my blog posts about the day here:

I admit that I found the first 10 hours quite hard. On Friday I was working a very long day and included travelling across the country and back (it doesn't sound too bad when you consider that you can do it in 45 minutes on the train). However it got better as the clock moved around to the official start time of the readathon. Twitter certainly got busier and was a welcome help when I hit a reading block.

These are the main lessons I learnt from the readathon:

Don't worry if you fall asleep
I nodded off 05:00 – 08:00 and woke up in a major panic. How could I miss three hours? Did that mean I would be kicked off the readthon? Of course not. No one expects you to be superhuman. If you find yourself nodding off, give in to the snoozes. Your body will thank you for it as you head towards Hour 19.

Snacks are very important
I should have guessed that any event involving books would make snacks a very important topic. On my Friday commute home, I was horrified to realise I had no snacks in the house apart from some sad looking bananas. A mad dash to the shops left me with some bags of pretzels and hummus which disappeared rather quick. On Saturday Him Indoors very kindly made a dash to the shops to pick up some vegan sushi and crisps. Next time I plan to be better prepared and not run out of snacks at Hour 14. 

Keep hydrated
This week I have been trying to cut down on coffee for health reasons. It did leave me a bit concerned that I would not be able to consume coffee to get through the 24 hours. In the end my total coffee intake amounted to one large strong mug of cafeteria coffee at 10:00 and a top up coffee at 17:00. One big difference is that I had been drinking more water during the readathon. So more water, less coffee!

Check the pages of your books
I thought I had made a very careful decision about which books I chose for the readathon. Not careful enough. I decided to leave The Golden Notebook because it came in at over 600 pages and had tiny, tiny print. This decision was made at Hour 18 of the readathon which was not the best time to make this discovery. At Hour 22 you do not want to be screwing up your eyes, trying to read the smallest typeface known to human kind.

It's OK to give up on books
I decided to give up on Sexual Politics in the early hours of Saturday morning. Whilst I was enjoying the book, the readathon is perhaps not the best place to be tackling quite heavy feminist theory. My two favourite reads, Tamburlaine Must Die and Red Dust Road, hit the right notes of being engaging and amusing whilst raising some interesting questions. Tamburlaine Must Die made me want to run off and do some research into Christopher Marlowe (which I resisted from doing). Red Dust Road made me think about the experiences of mixed heritage women in Britain as well as the experience of discovering your biological family.

Breaks are good for your sanity
People who work with computers are advised to take a five minute break every hour. This is to give your eyes a rest and, more important, your brain a break. During the readathon, I tried to take a 10 minute break every hour to move around. I used the bathroom, topped up my water glass, loaded the dishwasher and checked into the readathon conversation on Twitter and on the homepage. As I finished each book, I took five minutes to jot down any thoughts into my notebook for reviews at a later date.

Due to circumstances, I alternated between my living room and Him Indoors's study during the 24 hours. The physical breaks between space really helped my concentration and I did feel more alert when I settled back down to reading.

I've thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the readathon. Many thanks to the organisers and all the hard work they put into making the readathon happen. I had a fabulous time :) Roll on October!

Readathon: Hour 24

Here we are then, at the end of the readathon. I finished The Tenderness of Wolves just before 23:00 which left me a bit unsure about starting a new book. I decided to tackle another feminism book The Equality Illusion by Kat Baynard. I'm a little bit jealous of Baynard who wrote this feminist call to arms in 2010, when she was only 25. Kat interviewed hundreds of women from a range of backgrounds and she includes some of their stories in this book. Some of it brought back hideous memories, such as the chapter discussing sexual harassment women face from high school right into the their workplaces as adults. There's something not right in a world when a young woman can expect to be paid less than a male colleague for doing the exact same job.

Unfortunately I didn't get a chance to finish The Equality Illusion but something tells me that I'll be returning to it quite soon.

To end, let's have some lovely stats:

Tamburlaine Must Die - Louise Welsh 149 pages

Sexual Politics - Kate Millet 108 pages (did not finish)

Woman on the Edge of Time - Marge Piercy 378 pages

Red Dust Road - Jackie Kay 288 pages

The Tenderness of Wolves - Stef Penney 450 pages

The Equality Illusion - Kat Baynard 102 pages (did not finish)

comes to the grand total of 1475 pages read since the readathon started.

When you put it like that, I think I deserve to go to bed. Good luck to all those still taking part. Remember, lots of snacks and micronaps are the way to go.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Readathon: Hour 20

I can't quite believe I have been up for almost 20 hours! In 4 hours it will all be over and I can get some kip.

I finished Red Dust Road, a touching memoir by the writer Jackie Kay. This is probably one of my favourite reads of this readathon. Kay raises so many questions about identity, culture and how that all adds up to create an individual. I'm also cheered by some of her references to archives on her searches. The archivist she meets at Aberdeen University Archives tells her that they are "afraid of pens and bottled water." I may consider incorporating that into my day job when I have to tell researchers to hand over their contraband ink.

The next book I picked up was The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penny. Some of the reviews described it as a 'real page turner' and I felt that would hurry me along. I did toy with picking up The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. Unfortunately I did not realise that it clocks it at over 600 pages and the typeface is microscopic. Lesson learned for the next readathon: do not choose books that are over 400 pages withs small letters.

For the remainder of the readathon, I have retreated back to Him Indoors's study. He's finished work for the day and it seems unfair to expect him to sit in silence in the living room whilst I read. The study is quite cosy and it seems a fine place to spend the last four hours of my first readathon.

Soon I'm going to tuck into vegan sushi, curtsey of cutely named Jo Sushi and polish off some more beer.

Readathon: Hour 16

The afternoon has been full of stops and starts. I finished Woman on the Edge of Time and felt rather disturbed by it. The book was originally published in 1976 in the US. The Women's Press published this book in the UK and it's easy to see why. Piercy covers issues such as domestic abuse, drug and alcohol addiction, prostitution, racism,  women within the psychiatric care system, gender boundaries and motherhood. I've made some notes and I'll write a more detailed review after the readathon has finished.

At 13:00 GMT, the readathon kicked off in the US which has resulted in more traffic on the Twitter #readathon. Mini challenges have also popped up on the official readathon blog. None have ticked my fancy so far but there's still 7 hours left to go. I read this great blog post from Irish/Gail about surviving your first readathon. Sadly I forgot stock up on snacks but Him Indoors kindly went on a snack run for me. I now have vegan sushi and Kettle crisps to look forward to later. 

I have been having Twitter chats with AlexInLeeds, a readathon veteran. Do pop over and have a look at her posts.

I'm hurtling through my fourth read, Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. It's a humorous and touching account of Kay tracing her biological parents. Kay was born in Scotland and adopted by the Kay family: Communists living in Bishopbriggs which is just outside Glasgow. The Kays beliefs meant it was difficult for them to adopt children. Many adoption agencies in Glasgow in the 1950s and 1960s were run by religious organisations. Prospective parents were expected to provide proof that they attended church on a regular basis. I have so much admiration for John and Ellen Kay for refusing to compromise their beliefs. Kay's mother remembers taking Jackie and her brother Maxie, also adopted and from an African background, to Mull and being asked if the children knew any English. Ellen's response was 'Bloody cheek seeing as half of them still spoke Gaelic and not a word of English!'

On a side note, it's 16 hours in and I'm only on my second cup of coffee. However I'm suspecting the two hour nap I had earlier this morning helped!

Readathon: Hour 12

After some strong coffee and vegan porridge for breakfast, I have been feeling a lot more alert for the past 4 hours. Only 12 more hours left to go! I have been thoroughly enjoying Woman on the Edge of Time. It's a great book to read in one sitting. I suspect if I had been dipping in and out the book, say on my commute to work, I might have given up on it. Connie has started travelling to a Utopia-esque future in 2137 which comes with a whole range of made up words and changes in language. The strong coffee has helped me charge through the book!

I hijacked Him Indoors's office for the first half of the readathon. Our kakariki is kept in the living room and I felt it was unfair to keep him awake for 24 hours. He likes us but he still sleeps with one eye open when we're in the room with him. It was quite pleasant sitting in the office and taking advantage of the monster sound system Him Indoors has set up in there. Alas, he was to work today (the scourge of being self-employed) so I have retreated to the living room.

The readathon starts in one hour for the America participants so I imagine things will start getting busy. I'm hoping to finish Woman on the Edge of Time just after 13:00 then get started on my next non-fiction read. Jackie Kay's memoir about searching for her biological parents, Red Dust Road, has been silently calling me so I'll move onto that.

Readathon: Hour 8

You might be wondering why I did not update a bit earlier. The embarrasing truth is that I slipped into a nap around 05.30 and only awoke half an hour ago. It was very odd to be aware of the darkness of the night and wake up, well after dawn.

Before I started my slumber, I began reading Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. It's not the cheeriest of books.The story opens with the lead character's neice, Dolly, arriving at her door after being beaten by her pimp/husband. Connie tries to protect her but when the husband arrives, a scuffle breaks out. One more thing - Connie has been previously admitted to a psychartic institution which is why she ends up by the end of the first chapter.

I did think this was an appropriate book to pick up after dipping into Sexual Politics. Both Connie and her neiece have been protrayed as 'weak' and almost like posessions that belong to Dolly's husband. Once Connie has been admitted to the psychartic ward, everyone stops listening to or believing what she says. I'm hooked on Connie's story and what will happen to her next.

Readathon: Hour 3

Here we are at Hour 3 of the Readathon. I decided to start with a short book, Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh. Welsh writes from the perspective of Christopher Marlowe, an Elizabethan playwright and apparent rival to Shakespeare, in his final days before his mysteriously death in 1593. It was a gripping read and a real page turner. I finished the book by 01.30 and it was time to choose my next target.

I toyed with continuing with my 'light' theme but decided to go for Sexual Politics by Kate Millet. Although I studied Sociology at university, very little class time was given to feminism. The (mostly male) lecturers treated feminism as a necessary evil: not something they believed in but part of the curriculum. Millet's work was published in the 1970s and, I suspect, one of the first calls to arms for women. She hangs her analysis on literature but uses that to analyse the patriarchal society we live in. What bothers me is that this book was written over forty years ago and women are still having to deal with the same bullshit. My inner rage is keeping me going through what is a very informative book. I cannot wait until the chapter where Millet analyses D.H. Lawrence. She has a very funny, tongue in cheek way of writing whilst tackling some 'big' theories. 

Only 20.5 hours left to go. 

Readathon: Hour 0

Here we are at Hour 0 of the Readathon. I feel a bit like a renegade because I'm starting 13 hours before the 'official' start time. You can read my rather boring and obvious reasons for doing so here.

Choosing books for the readathon has been a tricky task. On Tuesday I went through my bookshelves and removed books that fitted the following criteria. One: books were written by a 'woman'. Two: books I could contemplate finishing during the readathon. For example, Gillespie and I has been teasing me from my bookshelves. However it does weigh in at 624 pages and I already had the tome of The Tenderness of Wolves sitting on my book pile. I'm due a holiday in June so I reluctantly put Gillespie and I back on the pile. Until the summer, my friend. 

Here's a group shot of my long list (please ignore my cluttered sofa, complete with a polar bear blanket!):

Him Indoors originally thought these books were for the charity shop box. Oh dear, how misinformed was he?

It was interesting to see my tastes venture towards fiction written by women. Out of the thirty six books I chose for my long list, twenty four were fiction, four were autobiographies, seven were feminist theory and one historical analysis of London in the eighteenth century. I had planned to alternate reading fiction with non-fiction but it might not be as simple as that. I've decided to keep the long list to hand, just in case I find I'm not enjoying some of my reads. So here's my short list that I'm planning to tackle today:

The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing
Woman on the Edge of Time – Marge Piercy
The Tenderness of Wolves – Stef Penny
Tamburlaine Must Die – Louise Welsh

Stand by books:
The Complete Stories – Flannery O'Connor
The Secret Life of Bees – Sue Monk Kidd

Sexual Politics – Kate Millet
Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Woman's Guide to why Feminism Matters – Jessica Valenti
Red Dust Road – Jackie Kay
The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet – Margaret Wertheim

Stand by books:
Cancer Vixen – Marisa Acocella Marchetto
The Equality Illusion - Kat Baynard

I am under no illusion that I will finish all books on this list by midnight tonight. However I'm going to have a good crack at it. Let the reading commence! 

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Book Review: The Luminous Life of Lily Aphrodite

Title: The Luminous Life of Lily Aphrodite

Author: Beatrice Colin

As the clock chimed the turn of the twentieth century, Lilly Nelly Aphrodite took her first breath. Born to a cabaret dancer and soon orphaned in a scandalous double murder, Lilly finds refuge at a Catholic orphanage, coming under the wing of the, at times, severe Sister August, the first in a string of lost loves.

There she meets Hanne Schmidt, a teen prostitute, and forms a bond that will last them through tumultuous love affairs, disastrous marriages, and destitution during the First World War and the subsequent economic collapse. As the century progresses, Lilly and Hanne move from the tawdry glamour of the tingle-tangle nightclubs to the shadow world of health films before Lilly finds success and stardom in the new medium of motion pictures and ultimately falls in love with a man whose fate could cost her everything she has worked for or help her discover her true self.

Gripping and darkly seductive, The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite showcases all the glitter and splendour of the brief heyday of the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Hollywood to its golden age. As it foreshadows the horrors of the Second World War, the novel asks what price is paid when identity becomes unfixed and the social order is upended.

Why did I pick up this book?
A guilty charity shop purchase.

My thoughts:

This book had been staring at me from my bookshelf for some time. My bed faces my row of bookshelves and it has been tempting me to read it for some time.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Colin does a fantastic job of weaving fact with the fictional character of Lily Aphrodite, as she travels through the horrors of Berlin in World War I through to Nazi Germany. Most of the narrative is from Lily's perspective. However Colin effortlessly shifts between characters' thoughts and actions within the same scene. At times I had to check the back cover, just to double check I had not picked up a biography. Even now I have to prevent myself from looking up Lily's name on Google to find out more about her. Yes, I believe in characters a bit too much sometimes.
This is where Colin's research pays off. In an author's note, she references a great-aunt who worked for a German film studio in the 1920s and 1930s as the inspiration behind the book. Her great-aunt was rather scornful about how little Colin knew about Weimar Germany. It's safe to say that Colin has done her aunt proud, especially with this wonderful book.

Colin has a remarkable skill for telling a story in a set of paragraphs. The destiny of a minor, but rather important, character is dealt with in half a page and has sad echoes of the loss experienced by Germany in World War I. For another major character, their destiny is revealed towards the end of the book as they reminise whilst being interned in the Dachu concentration camp. Colin teases the reader by referring to the character's end before hurtling back to the story at hand.

Would I recommend this book?

Yes, yes and yes. This is a great book to curl up with on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I was drawn into the lives of Lily, Hanne, Stefan and Eva to name a few. Colin's strips away the layers of these characters until she reaches their very core. A wonderful story. 

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Sunday Salon: A Quickie

The Sunday

A Sunday Salon post mid-month? Surely not! Alas, this one is just a quickie to give you an update about my activities next Saturday.

Why, what is happening next weekend that is so important? I hear you cry. For the first time I am taking part in Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon! Most years I have chosen not to actively take part because I usually worked on a Saturday. Sitting with my nose in a book (plus staying up for 24 hours) would not have been an option. Now my weekends are free, I've decided to take part. Following the example of Alex in Leeds, I'm going to start at midnight – GMT. The idea behind the Readathon originated in America so the 'official' start time begins at 13.00 on Saturday afternoon, UK time. I work on Mondays so staying up to 13.00 on Sunday is not ideal.

Today I'm going to spend my day wading through Mount TBR to select my reading choices. It's going to be lovely to give over an entire day of reading for pleasure. The Readathon also comes with an assortment of challenges so my blog might be rather active next weekend.

If you would like to join me on the Readathon, you can sign up here. Go on, you know you want to.  

Monday, 9 April 2012

Goals 2012: March Check In

OK I'm a little bit late with my March Check In. Blame the generous chocolate bank holiday. Alas March has been a crazy month. It's a busy time for my workplace and I had a lot of early starts/late finishes. It was good just to stand still at the weekends. Anyway, on with the check in.

1To start running again and enrol in a 10k run event

For some reason my health was not good in March. In hindsight I wonder if it was stress related. My back ached, my neck ached, my stomach was permanently on a spin cycle. I only started to feel better towards the end of March. Due to my lack of attendance at the gym, I was offered a free personal trainer session. It was surprisingly good and I picked up some work out tips to help with my running.

I'm continuing with the Couch to 5k program but felt like I had hit a dead end. I was running for three minutes with ease and feeling rather confident. Then I took a little break and felt like I was sliding backwards. Today (Easter Sunday) was the first time I had ventured out onto the streets for two weeks. I took the advice of a friend and altered my route slightly. And you know what? It felt good.

Initially I had decided to run a 10k this year. The women's 10k is at the start of May and there's no way I'll be ready for that. So I'll look into running another 10k later in the year. By signing up to an official run, I hope to keep going and improve my times. At the moment I'm managing to do just over 4k jogging/walking intervals in 36 minutes. I think that's not too bad.

2. To continue doing morning pages every day 

I think it might be time to change this goal, along with no. 3. My schedules have been all over the place in March, as I mentioned above. As always, the temptation to stay in bed has been too great. Though there have been some developments in my writing world.

Last Wednesday I joined a new writing class. It's really small and, coincidentally, only contains female students. The class is open to anyone who can afford the fees, this is no gender bias going on. It's in the lovely Bibliocafe which is probably the best cafe in Glasgow. Great coffee paired up with some time to write? Yes, please! I managed to scribble away in my notebook during the writing sessions and got some ideas down. Now comes the gritty task of occupying my attention and finishing a damn story.

Also, I've started writing in my 'Dreams' notebook again. This could be classed as subsisting my morning pages. Sometimes I wake up from a dream and think 'That would make a fab story. Where's my pen?' In my sleep haze I make some quick notes before the dream slips away. The book is half full which means I have lots of writing opportunities.

3. To stick to my weekly schedules 

It is ridiculous how badly I'm sticking to this goal. There have been some improvements. Since the rebirth of my iTouch, I have been using my Remember the Milk app again. I need to get a gentle prod to do things and RTM is a nice way of doing that. Hitting 'complete' on a task gives me a little buzz, even if it's something like changing the duvet covers. Perhaps RTM is the way forward.

4. To avoid getting into music ruts 

Again, this goal is getting better since the rebirth of my iTouch (yes, I have travelled to the dark side and become an Apple fan). One of the first apps I downloaded was mobile Spotify. It's not perfect but it is ensuring that I'm not listening to music on a constant loop. Favourite artists this month have included Santigold and First Aid Kit. Next step: writing about the music I'm listening to. Is it just me or does anyone else find this difficult to do?

5. To keep track of the books I read and participate in the Sunday Salon once a month 

The award for the best kept goal in March goes to.... no. 5! Take a bow whilst my dear readers have a look at March's Sunday Salon post

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Sunday Salon: Women Writers and Libraries

The Sunday

Here we are at the end of March. It's such a platitude but where has it gone? After last month's dire attempts at reading, I have been a bit better this month. Five books were consumed this month which brings my grand total to twelve books read in 2012:

8) The Secret Mandarin – Sara Sheridan
9) Grace Williams Says It Loud – Emma Henderson
11) Started Early, Took My Dog – Kate Atkinson
12) The Marriage Plot – Jeffery Eugenides

I have noticed two interesting things that happened to my reading habits this month. One: 4 out of 5 books were written by women. Two: 2 out of the 5 books were obtained from my local library. This makes me happy for the following reasons.

I consider myself a feminist and do try to read more books by women. After almost twenty books of reading books mostly written by men, I felt I had paid service to the male literary scene. Male writers are already more highly regarded than women; just read this article published in the New York Times this week. I had one of those moments of serendipity. My latest read has been The Marriage Plot which is discussed in the article. The book is well written and tackles topics such as love, mental health, death and relationships between people. Yet I agree with the article's writer: if this had been a book written by a woman, it would have been relegated to the 'women's literature' section. By doing so it belittles the content of the book. I bet the cover would have had some bizarre illustration of a woman with a dithering look on her face, encircled by a wedding ring. Instead the cover has big chunky, dare I say it, masculine text with flies crawling over the cover. For more about how women writers book covers and how they're marketed, read this article from The Scotsman.

Women's rights are under attack across the world and belittling women writers only adds to this. I call upon readers, across the genders, to seek out women writers, read their books, write about them on their blogs and spread the word. A good start would be The Handmaid's Tale by Margate Atwood, a book written in the 1980s and is frighteningly becoming a reality.

Local libraries have been under attack in the UK for a number of years. In fact, ever since the current establishment came into power (thanks Con Dems!). I wrote about this a while back and you can find my thoughts on the closure of libraries here. Recently I have decided to start practising what I preach. I have the luxury of being able to afford to buy books. Yet many people do not which is why libraries are so important. My local library system, Glasgow City libraries, has a fantastic stock. When I request books, I usually have them within a couple of weeks. I work close to a local library so I have the option of being able to pick up the books there. The charge for requesting books? Nothing. There is a cap on requesting books; you can request up to 9 books at any one time. Fair enough, it's still pretty good for a free service.

Twitter users can highlight their use of libraries by using the #savelibraries in their tweets. Meanwhile I'm off to tackle my next library read: Beloved by Toni Morrison. Have a happy Salon Sunday, folks!

Oh dear, it appears this post was accidentally influenced by Alex Wolf's 'Sunday Salon: Hunting Female Historians' post. So I should really acknowledge Alex for planting this seed in my unoriginal brain!